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WWMD? In Conversation with Mark Amery

WW..D? Is an interview segment where we get to know awesome people that are a part of the creative community in New Zealand.

This week we spoke to curator Mark Amery, of Letting Space. As well as being a curator Mark has been an instrumental art writer over a wide variety of platforms. Read more for What Would Mark Do?

How did you first get into the art industry and how has that developed over time?

Back in the day: through music and alternative media. All I ever wanted as a teen in the 80s hanging out in K Road and back in suburbia was to play music on bFM, really. With an interest across music, art and theatre I got really excited when I got involved in radio and then in an independent crossartform art mag Stamp in all the things my contemporaries were doing – thinking about it through discussion and commentary felt important. That led to a lot of work as a radio and print arts producer and editor, and amongst it the interesting arts community crosspollination that was Artspace in Quay Street in the early 90s. From a teen it was always the work happening between forms and modes that got me going. I went on to work a lot as an independent arts journalist and critic because I felt that there could be nothing more interesting than opening out the discussion of the issues the art I was encountering offered. Bridging. I had various roles on occasion in curation, development work, public programmes and arts publicity, alongside always writing and broadcasting. All this formed in time to a really passionate belief in the importance of public space – art and the media’s role in drawing diversity to that space and allowing people to be shifted and changed by the work and the conversations. That for me is the magic. I recognise now looking way back that it was the artists who bridged areas, crossed all boundaries and weren’t afraid to talk about ideas like Lye, Phil Dadson, a lot of post object art and all that inspiring music that always propelled me along. New ideas. New forms.

Letting Space is a unique entity that is a part of New Zealand’s art industry, how did the idea come about?

Sophie Jerram and I with Judy Millar and others did a far more casual version of it with Artspace about 1994. Early 90s Auckland CBD. The tail end of a recession. It saw a lot of vacant property and a lot of artists living and working in the city. We were all running magazines and studios on Queen Street or close by. Then five years ago in Wellington, Sophie and I were still friends and after having seen the amazing vibrancy and arts crosspollination and growth in professionalism that came out of artists having space in Welly in the late 90s, and how that then got squeezed by the property market, we saw a recession, vacancies and it all coming around again. That’s led now to the set up with our co-producer Helen Kirlew Smith, Urban Dream Brokerage, to share the love to others wanting space. Letting Space’s work has grown beyond all this to be about expanding and exploring new ways of using the public commons through art and media projects – not just the use of vacant space. It’s strongly rooted in the belief that art can be challenging and complex as well as accessible outside the gallery as part of the social fabric, and really work for social change in some interesting new ways through provocation.

How does Letting Space sit within New Zealand’s current art institutions, is letting space itself becoming an institution?

Great question. Cos we’re keen to seed things I think maybe we get seen as an institution. I don’t think we are. Yet. My reasoning for this is very practical: we don’t have a proper office and we don’t get properly paid. We are still scraping things together project by project, writing answers to questions late at night…. I really do think this is important to emphasise. Institutions receive firm annual funding allowing staff (often full time!) to have the paid time to do their research etc. But we’re always trying to achieve the wider reach for artists that those up a level can provide. It’s important to provide infrastructure outside the gallery walls around this sort of work that we really care about. It’s the future!

Can you tell us about the Urban Dream Brokerage Project?

We broker vacant spaces for the use of innovative projects that will bring more community and diversity to the city. Together we explore how it can grow as a living spaces. Our cities need to start changing with the way we live and work is changing. UDB is not just about art projects (a limiting label for urban growth). We’ve come from a public art root but we’re interested in new alternative modes of operating of all kinds, as long as they’re people focussed, don’t replicate what’s already there and are fresh retail, community group based, social entrepreneurial etc. All proposals go through a relatively rigorous process with an advisory panel that hopefully helps sharpen them up. I’m really proud of the 25 and counting projects we’ve helped along, and thus far a lot have been in the ‘public art’ space, but from an alternative cinema model (People’s Cinema) to the current ‘Homies Cosy Teahouse’ they’re getting far more diverse. You can have a roll through them at www.urbandreambrokerage.org.nz.

You write about art across a number of different platforms, why write?

It’s a way of wrestling with ideas, but then exciting others to think and own their own thoughts. It feels like what you write has a function far beyond you in activating discussion. And I write because the actual exercise is always for me challenging. I feel like a beginner all the time. I’m learning new things all the time. I’m dealing with complexities that are hard to describe and analyse, but feel vital. New ideas, new words. I like to be surprised and challenged.

Writing archives art in a unique way and at times gives a show validity, what do you think the role of the art writer is and is it still necessary?

Big questions! Valuing things is really vital. I’ve never had any interest in the actual financial worth of the art object – I’m interested in the ideas that spill out. Art to me is this incredibly important connective fabric between things. Allowing us to think and feel differently. I think our role as writers is to help realise this intention. And it’s an intention that in operating in new ways is at odds with the channel the public and media are familiar with)  Empower people to open things out that are easily dismissed because they’re new.

What motivates your curatorial and writing decisions?

With writing I’ve been driven increasingly by what I find challenges, affects me or changes me.  Again what makes me think or feel differently. I then want to explore that.  Sometimes it does that for all the wrong reasons – I want to get to the bottom of why it’s not delivering to a promise or an expectation. This subjectivity is important I feel in helping us own our very different perspectives. If I’m ambivalent I’m not very motivated. With curation it’s instinctive but I think the Letting Space mandate is pretty clear – around engendering change, seeking fresh new forms, working with people in new ways. Love and criticality – that pairing that was coined during our TEZA project (www.teza.org.nz) – speaks to a lot. You also have to know you can work together with people. That there will be an openness, a generosity of spirit and ability to change together and keep questioning.

Lastly do you have any words of advice for young writers or curators.

Go with your passion. Go with your instinct. Be open but question everything. Relish not knowing, and look to understand. Particularly for writers: you’ve just got to work it. Like a guitarist you just got to keep playing.

Photo credit: Mark Coote
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